I’m going to do a double review here of two papers currently online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. I’m lumping them together because they both more or less challenge the pervasive conservation/restoration paradigm that connectivity is the key to reducing extinction risk. It’s just interesting (and slightly amusing) that the two were published in the same journal and at about the same time, but by two different groups.
From our own work looking at the correlates of extinction risk (measured mainly by proxy as threat risk), the range of a population (i.e., the amount of area and number of habitats it covers) is the principal determinant of risk – the smaller your range, the greater your chance of shuffling off this mortal coil (see also here). This is, of course, because a large range usually means that you have some phenotypic plasticity in your habitat requirements, you can probably disperse well, and your not going to succumb to localised ‘catastrophes’ as often. It also probably means (but not always) that your population size increases as your range size increases; as we all know, populations must be beyond their minimum viable population size to have a good chance of persisting random demographic and environmental vagaries.
Well, the two papers in question, ‘Both population size and patch quality affect local extinctions and colonizations‘ by Franzén & Nilssen and ‘Environment, but not migration rate, influences extinction risk in experimental metapopulations‘ by Griffen & Drake, show that connectivity (i.e., the probability that populations are connected via migration) are probably the least important components in the extinction-persistence game.
Using a solitary bee (Andrena hattorfiana) metapopulation in Sweden, Franzén & Nilssen show that population size and food patch quality (measured by number of pollen-producing plants) were directly (but independently) correlated with extinction risk. Bigger populations in stable, high-quality patches persisted more readily. However, connectivity between patches was uncorrelated with risk.
Griffen & Drake took quite a different approach and stacked experimental aquaria full of daphnia (Daphnia magna) on top of one another to influence the amount of light (and hence, amount of food from algal growth) to which the populations had access (it’s interesting to note here that this was unplanned in the experiment – the different algal growth rates related to the changing exposure to light was a serendipitous discovery that allowed them to test the ‘food’ hypothesis!). They also controlled the migration rate between populations by varying the size of holes connecting the aquaria. In short, they found that environmentally influenced (i.e., food-influenced) variation was far more important at dictating population size and fluctuation than migration, showing again that conditions promoting large population size and reducing temporal variability are essential for reducing extinction risk.
So what’s the upshot for conservation? Well, many depressed populations are thought to be recoverable by making existing and fragmented habitat patches more connected via ‘corridors’ of suitable habitat. The research highlighted here suggests that more emphasis should be placed instead on building up existing population sizes and ensuring food availability is relatively constant instead of worrying about how many trickling migrants might be moving back and forth. This essentially means that a few skinny corridors connecting population fragments will probably be insufficient to save our imperilled species.
Franzen, M., & Nilsson, S. (2009). Both population size and patch quality affect local extinctions and colonizations Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1584
Griffen, B., & Drake, J. (2009). Environment, but not migration rate, influences extinction risk in experimental metapopulations Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1153